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High taxes force Travis Heights resident to find new home for cottages

Monday, May 5, 2014 by Elizabeth Pagano

Saying that he can no longer bear the cost of rising property taxes, one long-term Travis Heights resident is looking for a new home for his historic cottages, much to the heartbreak of some neighbors.


Charles Flores explained that he has lived next door to the cottages since 1996, and owned the property at 311 Leland since 1999. Flores said that over time, repairs, insurance and taxes had made him unable to maintain the property. He told the commission that over the last decade, he had paid over $250,000 in taxes alone.


The Historic Landmark Commission was sympathetic to his plight: Chair Laurie Limbacher took time to thank Flores for his good stewardship of the property and good cheer in going through the process. The commission voted unanimously to postpone the case until the May12 meeting, in the hopes that some yet-undetermined solution could be found.


The four cottages in question were built by the Calcasieu Lumber Company of Austin in the 1920s and 1930s. The small cottages are unique to Austin, and though they were once scattered across the city, their numbers are dwindling.


“We don’t have a lot of these left,” said Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky. “These are unique to the city… the only place they ever existed was here,”


The cottages are considered four separate houses by area taxing entities and insurance companies. Additionally, the 600 square foot cottages sit on about half-an-acre of land, taking up the large Travis Heights property with 10 percent impervious cover.


Flores said that he had numerous offers on the property, and if he had sold the land would have been converted to a large, expensive project by now. For his part, he plans to build something in scale with the neighborhood and the land.   


“I didn’t sell it, because I don’t want to. Once I do that, someone could come in a build some kind of monstrosity. I would like to put something there that looks period, that looks like it belongs in that neighborhood and that I will be proud living next-door to,” said Flores.                                  


“I have a special place in my heart for these cottages,” said Flores. “I’ve lived next door; my in-laws have lived there… I have some pets that are buried back there. I’ve been there a long time; I’ve had two children who grew up on the property there”


Flores said that he had looked into expanding the cottages, but found that an impractical use of the lot. He also entertained the idea of operating the four units more like a motor court, as short-term rentals. That was something that the neighborhood rejected, which he understood.


Casey Gallagher, who is a resident of Travis Heights as well as a consultant who has been working on the Historic District designation for the neighborhood, said the cluster of cottages was “incredibly significant.” She explained that the effort to create a historic district in Travis Heights had been limited to the area that the cottages are in.


“I think that losing it would really be devastating to a lot of people,” said Gallagher. “I think there is potential to use it in creative ways… to get people in there and keep it a vital part of the community.”


“If there is a way to landmark them – I totally understand the tax craziness of Travis Heights – to give some relief on that front, I think that would be a really great help. I just hope we can do whatever we can to keep them together,” said Gallagher.


She was joined by several other neighbors, who spoke against the removal of the cottages.


“This section of the neighborhood is still so charming, and just what people think of when they picture Travis Heights,” said Melanie Martinez, who is a resident of Fairview Park. “Every neighborhood is like a storybook. You start tearing the pages out and it doesn’t even make sense any more. I would just hate to see something as special as that lost.”


Sadowsky explained that while staff was very much opposed to the demolition of the cottages, they had sympathy for the position that Flores found himself in. For that reason, they were willing to go along with a plan to relocate the cottages.


“The upside is that they will be saved. The downside is that we will lose a formation of four that is extremely rare in the city. But staff definitely feels for this applicant and understands the economic situation that is forcing him into this situation. I think if he could get to the point where he could refurbish and rent these out for the amount of money that it takes for him to break even with the rising property taxes, he would do it,” said Sadowsky. “It’s a very unfortunate reality of today’s Austin.”


Flores said that suggestions that the cottages could be made profitable or be sold were naïve, as was the idea that making the structures historic would save significant money. He explained that even renters eventually moved on to bigger spaces after being tested by the small living spaces of the cottages.


“If I was a millionaire, they would just sit like that and they would just be a little pet project,” said Flores. “I would just pay someone to do it. I really would. I thought about it, I’ve talked to my wife about it, but I’m not in that position.”

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